Leslie Callahan

title.none: Petrucci, Writing the Dead (Callahan)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.011 99.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leslie Callahan, University of Pennsylvania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Petrucci, Armando. Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 163. $35.00. ISBN: 0-804-72859-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.11

Petrucci, Armando. Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 163. $35.00. ISBN: 0-804-72859-3.

Reviewed by:

Leslie Callahan
University of Pennsylvania

Armando Petrucci's Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition resists review. A highly detailed account of funerary writing, its developments and relationships to the cultures that produced it, the work is a frustratingly fragmented one, whose many pieces do not come together to form a whole. The book's frustrations are not limited to questions of content, however--neither the critical apparatus nor the illustrations are very user friendly.

Petrucci's aim is "to sketch out the set of writing practices and written products employed to record the dead in a public way" (xiv). The question underlying the study is "what has been the function of the funerary uses of writing over time?" (xviii) Examples of the "funerary use of writing" are drawn from a variety of sources--epigraphical material, scrolls, books, manuscripts, loose printed matter, newspapers and posters. The emphasis throughout is on writing, not on the content of the writing or on the support for the writing, but on the physical and spatial disposition of letters and words.

Petrucci's geographical limits are broad: Mediterranean civilization, Europe, and North America, and his chronological scope extends from the paleolithic era to the times of Jim Morrison. Petrucci claims that it was not his intention to write a "continuous history" of the making of a written record of the dead, but rather to "highlight certain situations or certain themes along the way that bring out moments of crisis or change in the practices of writing employed in a coherent strategy of funerary record," (xv) and it is precisely this strategy that gives the book its disorganized quality.

The book is divided into sixteen unnumbered chapters, each of which is further divided into numbered subsections, giving the work the impression of loosely connected segments. The first section "The Tomb and its Signs," deals with the paleolithic and neolithic periods when the first systems were developed for distinguishing "the places of some dead from those of others," (2) and then moves on to Egypt in the second and third millennia, when a growing concern for the survival of the dead and the "conservation of their individual identity" (3) was evident. In this section Petrucci follows a procedure employed throughout the book: he emphasizes discontinuities and differences in systems for writing the dead, calling attention to the class-based distinctions in funerary writing that provide the subtext for his discussion.

In the second section, "From the Sign to the Text," the author considers the appearance of funerary monuments in Greek culture, a discussion continued into the next section, "The Order of the Text," which focuses on Athens in the fifth century, when a clear division between text and image was introduced, and when "the written message marking a burial place was for the first time laid out so as to favor its reading by the eventual urban public to which it was clearly addressed." (11) The monument is thus viewed within its socio- cultural context. These two sections, like the subsequent chapters, are accompanied by illustrations. The placement and mode of referring to the figures is one of the most frustrating aspects of this book: the figure numbers are not entered into the text, so that the reader spends a great deal of time trying to match up the image to the description. Because far more objects are described than illustrated, this can prove a rather difficult and time-consuming task. Similar frustration arises in the consultation of notes. There are no numbered references in the text, but notes are grouped according to the number of the subdivision in the text.

Petrucci's focus now shifts to Rome for two sections. In "The Order of Memory," Petrucci discusses pre-Christian Rome and the Roman senatorial aristocracy, whose monuments had a distinctly commemorative function. The legibility of the highly geometric inscription was of paramount importance, in order that the deeds of the dead, marked as belonging to a specific milieu, be remembered. Petrucci comments on the marriage of form and function: "this rigid formal strategy--matched a complex series of mental attitudes that insisted on the tomb's eternal value and inviolability and on permanence for its funerary writing" (18).

The early Christians, wanting to distance themselves from pagan practices, developed new modes of writing the dead, discussed in the section entitled "The Names and The Crosses." New ideological considerations including a move toward egalitarianism and an emphasis on humility, along with the new layout of Christian tombs necessitated by their location enclosed within the catacombs, called for new ways of 'writing the dead'; the linearity of archaic funerary inscription was no longer necessary, and new iconographic elements were introduced. Worship of special group of Christian dead--the martyrs--"shaped," in the words of Petrucci, "many particular activities, among which writing stands out," (27) an intriguing statement that he neither explains or develops.

From Christian Rome, Petrucci moves to African epigraphic traditions, and from Africa he returns to Italy, and to the time of Pope Damasus, when "a funerary epigraphy of high formal quality began to develop in Rome." (33) The itinerary sketched within this section alone demonstrates the difficulties of following Petrucci's argument and piecing together the diverse bits of information with which he provides his readers.

In "Writing the Great," Petrucci concentrates on Europe in the Early Middle Ages, tracing the wide variations in funerary writing during the sixth and seventh centuries from Poitiers to Milan, and finds in the former area, a "free and unsystematic quest for new spatial and graphic solutions in which abstract figural elements often go along with writing." (37) The author attributes this freeness to the absence of antique models in these areas, which he compares to the "Pavian" models in which he finds the "conscious use of a solemn funerary style, a new epigraphical script, and spatial arrangements that go back to late antique tradition, though employed in an entirely original way." (38) This commentary is indicative of a subtle but prevalent favoring of Italian models, and of classicist order over an implied northern European disorder.

In the seventh section "The Book and the Stones," Petrucci takes up the question of funerary writing in the high Middle Ages. He traces the development of the "written culture of the church" in which all types of books of the dead--necrologies, obituaries and mortuary rolls--recorded the ever-increasing numbers of names of the dead, attesting to an ever-growing concern with memory and memorialization. He ties this phenomenon to the multiplication of the pavement slab, attributing the shift from the inscription of the epitaph on a vertical slab to its relocation on a horizontal strip running along the external border to purely formal considerations: In this case, the passage was from the slab to the strip, prompted this time not by the book, but by the crafting of small objects, in particular gold working, but also ivory carving, the influence of enamels and fabrics, and even, in all likelihood, that of Scandinavian funerary epigraphy of the Viking Age. (51)This is an interesting theory, but one that is unconvincing and that demonstrates the danger of failing to fully contextualize cultural artifacts within their socio-economic context as well as their physical location in space. The flat pavement tomb developed out of spatial considerations precipitated by economic ones. More and more individuals wanted to be buried within the church space, and as increasing numbers of non- aristocratic people could afford to pay for the privilege, the space became crowded. The flat tomb was a solution to that problem. Along with the desire to be buried within the church came the drive for commemoration which found its expression in the portrayal of the figure of the deceased in a manner that best represented his or her social position, profession, or wealth. The words remained important, but appeared as a frame to the image. Petrucci also fails to mention the fact that a vertical plaque with a fully-developed epitaph often accompanied a flat slab.

In the next four sections, "Monument and Document," "The Body, Knowledge, and Money," "Florence and Rome," and "From the Stone to the Page," Petrucci continues to trace, in great detail, the trends in the spatial organization of text in funerary writing in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. His focus remains largely on Italy, although he does compare Italian models to Franco-German ones, often to the detriment to the former which were slow to move from the "Gothic" style tomb to the classical models revived by the Renaissance.

By far the most interesting of the chapters and the most informative, for this reader, at least, was the next-to-last section, entitled "The Middle Class and Its Writing," in which Petrucci jumps ahead to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States and France. In his discussion of the founding of the great Parisian necropoli of Pere Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse, of the phenomenon of the vast war cemeteries of the twentieth century, and in his description of the elaboration of the written, published obituary and death announcement, Petrucci gives his most convincing argument for the interplay between class, politics and the writing of the dead. In the last section "Multiply and Decrease," he introduces other expressions of funerary writing practices found particularly among the what he terms the working- and lower-middle classes: from Italy, the wall poster announcing the death of an individual and the "santino" or holy picture; from Anglo-American culture, the tradition of the mourning card or death announcement. The author suggests that the prevalence of cemetery "memorial artifacts," such as photographs of the deceased, open books in marble, unrolled scrolls, and the like, points to the disappearance of traditional practices of "writing the dead": "It seems one must conclude that funerary writing has reached the end of its span and that Western society is about to abandon one of its principal and most particularized ways of recording death, one conceived almost twenty-seven hundred years ago and practiced ever since." (130). Although the author does signal the rise of new ways of commemorating the dead, mentioning the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial as an example, it is regrettable that he does not devote more space to them. By leaving such examples unnamed-- the AIDS Quilt, Holocaust memorials, the hundreds of plaques in the Parisian cemeteries commemorating the deported (there is no reference to Jewish cemeteries or funerary writing in the entire book although such cemeteries figured in the heart of the European urban experience from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century) the author is, perhaps unintentionally, privileging certain dead over others.